By Christopher Cudworth
They get up even earlier than you do on race day. They attend a pre-race meeting where the police give them instructions on how to protect the intersections to which they are assigned. They drive, bike or walk out to a lonely corner and wait in the early morning light, sometimes in the chill or rain or wind, with no one there to encourage them.
Sometimes they wear race or volunteer tee shirts. That is their reward for volunteering. For making the race a safer place. For standing on their feet for two or three hours, or handing out water or sports drinks and getting sloshed with same.
Volunteers make races happen
At a water station the truck from Dick Pond Athletics was parked in a neighborhood driveway filled with giant plastic jugs of water for the aid station. As runners streamed past at the 4-mile mark, volunteers called out “Pond Water! Get your Pond Water!”
One runner stopped in his tracks to ask: “Pond Water? Oh, I get it!” And kept running.
The inside joke was one of many fun interchanges between competitors and volunteers. At the same aid station one runner carried his water cup with him looking for a trash can. “I can’t bring myself to litter!” he said, staring down at the array of emptied cups laying on the grass and street. “We’ll pick it up!” a volunteer called after him.
There would be no races without the volunteers. Or the fees would be so high that participation would be impossible. Already the races you enjoy pay fair but sometimes expensive fees for police and emergency services. Paying people to stand on corners directing traffic at every corner would be prohibitive.
Every last volunteer counts
So the job of a volunteer is crucial right down to the last person on the course. You will see people of all ages volunteers. Kids handing out water. Seniors holding up flags for criterium racing so that cyclists don’t veer off course. The list goes on.
It isn’t all pretty when you volunteer for a race. Sometimes you find out the ugly secrets of course management. That it takes a little bravado to stop drivers who think they deserve the privilege of getting through or onto the race course. “Please wait,” you tell them. But the driver grumbles and eeks up to your barrier or sticks a fender into the intersection. People can be jerks.
Logistics fail. Sometimes water stations run out of water. Timing clocks falter. Splits get forgotten. Runners veer off course or worse yet, cheat and veer back on. We’re talking about the human condition at its extremes.
Giving thanks for volunteers
They know you’re lying, but they don’t care. It’s one human being helping another.
That’s what volunteering to work a race is all about. So whether you run or ride or swim, or all three, don’t forget to volunteer each year. The 4th Estate of competition is people who give back to their sports. You get a lot more from the experience than the time you put in.